#713: Head-to-Head – Commander, Part 2
This podcast is part two of a two-part series on a Head-to-Head I did on Twitter about possible changes to the Commander format.
Posted in Making Magic on February 17, 2020
Last week, I began talking about the design of Unsanctioned, a silver-bordered box set coming out on February 29. Today is the second part of that story. I'm walking through the design of each of the sixteen new designs for the product.
When we first sat down to plan out what the new cards were going to be, one of the things I said I wanted was another silver-bordered planeswalker card. Unstable had Urza, Academy Headmaster, but I wanted a second Un- Planeswalker in the world. The Planeswalker lineup (at least the making of new Planeswalkers) isn't overseen by R&D, but by our Franchise Team, so I collected a bunch of ideas for Un- planeswalker cards and paid them a visit. The main rule of silver-bordered sets is if we're willing to do it in black border, I leave it for black border. The same is true of planeswalker cards. If the Franchise team was willing to make the planeswalker card in a black-bordered set, I didn't want to make it here. Here's how the meeting went:
Me: How about [censored idea]?
Me: Okay, what about [censored idea]?
Them: Less likely than the first one, but still possible.
Me: What do you think of [censored idea]?
Them: We've been talking about that. I'm not sure if it's going to go anywhere, but I guess technically it's still a maybe.
Me: How about [censored idea]?
Them: Let me talk with the others about that one.
Me: What about [censored idea]?
Them: Oh, we're doing that one.
Me: [Censored idea]?
Them: That's another one I need to talk with the others about.
Me: A Beeble collective?
Them: That's all yours.
Once I knew our Planeswalker was a bunch of Beebles, I knew the card was going to be blue, as all our previous Beebles were blue. The question before me was how exactly do I play up the idea of a collective of creatures being a Planeswalker? My inspiration, interestingly enough, came from Richard Garfield, although, not from a Magic product. Many years ago, Wizards of the Coast had made a project called Gleemax (it was a website gaming portal) which Richard had worked on. One of the games for Gleemax was a game called the Goblin Game. Richard had a cute idea that I don't think even got used for the game, but always stuck with me. The idea was a game where your hit points were represented by goblins. So, the more goblins you had, the healthier you were, and as you took damage, you lost goblins. I remembered that while starting the design for B.O.B. What if the Beebles were your loyalty?
What would that mean exactly? It would mean every time you gained a loyalty, you would create a 1/1 blue Beeble creature token, and every time you lost loyalty, you would sacrifice a Beeble. I went to Eli Shiffrin, the Rules Manager, to make sure I wasn't playing in space black border could use, and he replied, "Heavens, no!"
To make this work, I realized it would need a global ability that added and subtracted Beebles to monitor the loyalty. It would also need an enters-the-battlefield effect to get the initial Beebles loyalty. That meant I had space for two abilities. One would have to be a positive ability and one a negative ability. I decided to keep it to -1 and +1. I started with the -1. You needed to sacrifice a Beeble to use it, so I knew it needed to be something substantial. As B.O.B. was a mono-blue planeswalker, "draw a card" seemed like the perfect fit.
The +1 ability had to play up the Beeble flavor. The one mechanical through line on Beebles has been they're hard to block. So, what if the +1 added a Beeble and made all your Beebles unblockable? It was a little strong for a +1 and didn't connect at all to the -1 ability. Was there a restriction we could add that would create a connection? Yes, we could limit how many Beebles were unblockable based on how many cards were in your hand.
Once that was done, all that was left was giving B.O.B. a name. I knew it had to be alliterative with "B" as that's how all the previous Beebles have been named. It seemed clear we wanted "collective term starting with B" of Beebles. There were a bunch of options, but Bevy of Beebles sounded best. I then realized that if we made an acronym of the name, we got B.O.B., which seemed like a cool thing people could call the card.
Because Unsanctioned only needed sixteen new cards, we didn't officially make a design team for it. Working with Gaby Weidling and Max McCall, I laid out a rough outline of what we believe we wanted the sixteen new cards to be. I then posted that outline to a place where everyone in R&D would see them and asked people to turn in designs. Silver-border designs are harder to do than normal Magic cards as they require a lot of extra nuance. Here are the most common mistakes made:
It's black border – A lot of people create silver-border designs only to have me inform them that the card could just be done in a normal black border set. Understanding the dividing line is tricky; it's based on understanding what we can and can't do rules-wise, what we've chosen to set off limits for black border (like dice rolling), and what we've creatively carved off for silver border (such as Beebles are now just a silver-border thing).
It's funny but doesn't play well – Another common mistake are designs that read well but don't play well. It's not enough that a silver-bordered card makes you chuckle when you first see it, we also want it to be fun when you play with it.
It doesn't work – I'm sure this sounds funny given how crazy Un- cards can be rules-wise. What I mean by this is it doesn't have an internal logic or intuitive sense to how it works. The best weird Un- cards are the ones where it's clear what they do, it's just not something that the black-border rules can technically handle. Trample on direct damage or an enchantment that makes effects last forever, for example, doesn't confuse anyone, they just aren't things we could make work within the (somewhat) orderly black-border rules. I often will get designs where the card asks you to do something, but it becomes fuzzy quickly what's supposed to happen. A good metric for this is to show the card to many different people and have them say what they think the card does. If they're not all saying mostly the same thing, you usually have a problem.
What this means is that most of silver-border design tends to be done by fulltime card designers. For Unsanctioned, the vast majority of the design work was done by Chris Mooney, Ari Nieh, and myself (the first two were two of the three finalists of Great Designer Search 3). Boomstacker, in particular, was designed by Chris Mooney. It's what we refer to as a "brain to print" card, that is, what Chris first created is mostly what ended up in print. We toyed around with whether it was supposed to add one or two dice per turn, but in the end, we went with what Chris designed.
For every product we create, we have something known as the key art. It's a piece of art which captures the essence of the set and, usually with a booster release product, appears on the box of boosters. For Unsanctioned, it appears on the box of the product. Normally, the key art is the very first art we assign for a product as it's needed to create the box, which has to start earlier than laying out the cards (which requires the art for the individual cards). This means the very first art we saw for Unsanctioned was the following, by artist Mike Burns:
Keven Smith, a senior art director, wrote the card concept for the key art. The product was trying to capture the three Un- sets (Unglued, Unhinged, and Unstable) and had a working name of Unboxed (for various reasons, we ended up needing to go with a different name), so Keven liked the idea of a boxing match made up of creatures that were staples in Un- products. This led to the goblin fighting the squirrel with a chicken as the referee. When the art came in, they showed it around and we all instantly fell in love with the chicken. I said, "We have to make a card for the chicken referee."
One of the things I like to do with Un- cards is write down ideas for parts of cards and later see if I can find combinations that go together. There's a Magic format known as Flavor Draft where players draft a set and whenever something happens that they think doesn't make sense flavor-wise, they call over a judge (known as a flavor judge) to rule on whether something can happen. If the flavor judge doesn't rule that it makes flavor sense, the action or effect is stopped. This seemed like a cool space to play in on an Un- card.
So, when I first made my outline for designs, I said that this card was going to be a chicken referee (the same one from the key art, drawn by the same artist) called Flavor Judge and I wanted it to capture the fun of Flavor Draft. I think I made a few early attempts at the design, but Chris was the one that made the version you will all be able to play with.
One last thing. In Unglued, Chickens were a tribal component of the set. Years later, we had something we called the Grand Creature Update where we updated a large number of the creature types. One of the things we did was turn all the various birds (Eagle, Falcon, etc.) into the Bird creature type. As the Grand Creature Update was only applied to black-bordered cards, the silver-bordered Chickens remained Chickens. When we were talking through the reprints, we decided to bring back Chicken-a-la-King, and I said it was odd that it didn't just affect Birds. Birds have never had a great tribal lord, and Chicken-a-la-King was actually pretty strong. Since we're updating things to make all the reprints, let's just do what we should have done long ago and make the Chickens into Birds like every other bird type. This meant that Flavor Judge was creature type Bird and not Chicken.
One of the goals of Unsanctioned was to make some of the cards players had wanted to see in Unstable that we didn't get a chance to make. One of those cards was the third Infernal Spawn of Evil card. Let me explain its history. Many years ago, back in probably 1996, Ron Spencer turned in a humorous sketch. Our art process requires that artists first turn in a sketch to get approval from the art director before they do their final illustration. Ron Spencer had some scary black creature to draw (one of Ron's specialties), but instead of turning in the actual sketch, he turned in this cute little mouse drinking cocoa. Everyone had a good laugh and then Ron sent in the actual sketch. The fake sketch was hung up by the then Magic art director (we only had one back then) because everyone thought it was so funny.
Flash forward to Unglued's design. I'm looking for humorous cards to make, and I remember Ron's sketch. I said I wanted to make that picture into a card. Playing into Ron's original joke, I liked the idea that it's the scariest possible creature and that its cute demeanor is contrast to how horrible the creature is in reality. I gave it the name Infernal Spawn of Evil. To capture its scariness and to make it an Un- card, I gave it a mechanic that allowed you to reveal it from your hand and say, "I'm coming." Knowing this horrible creature is on its way is enough to make your opponent lose 1 life out of fear. I made it an expensive creature as it needed to be something actually scary once it hit the battlefield. I made it a flying, first strike 7/7. Back then, first strike was secondary in black (it's now tertiary). One final joke. At the time, we had stopped using the Demon card type and instead were using Beast or Horror, so, to make fun of that, I had the creature type say
Demon with Beast written in. Here's the card:
Again, flash forward, this time to Unhinged's design. Infernal Spawn of Evil was a big hit in Unglued, so we decided to do another one. The obvious joke was calling it Infernal Spawn of Infernal Spawn of Evil. This was the child of the original Infernal Spawn of Evil, so we made it more expensive (a converted mana cost of 10 rather than 9) and bigger (8/8 instead of 7/7). We then gave it the same keywords, flying and first strike, and added one new one—trample. We also kept the original Beast creature type and added Child, but then keeping with the joke, we crossed out Beast and wrote Demon (by the time of Unhinged, we'd brought the Demon creature type back to the game).
The tricky part of the design was how to expand upon the main mechanic of the original card. How do we top a creature that can damage you from your hand? How about a creature that can damage you from your library? The ability still costs 1B and requires you speaking (this time saying, "I'm coming, too"), but because searching your library is harder than just having it in your hand, we upped the damage from 1 to 2. Of course, we had Ron Spencer do the art and, again, he hit it out of the park. Here's the card:
During Unstable design, we were definitely aware that we could do a third Infernal creature, but there were a number of problems:
In the end, we opted not to make the card in Unstable as we didn't know how to solve any of these problems.
Again, flash forward, this time to after Unstable's release. Many players really enjoyed Unstable, but they had expected the third Infernal to be in the set, and it wasn't. They complained about it to me quite a bit, so when we were working on Unsanctioned, I vowed that we were going to figure it out. In fact, we commissioned the art (to Ron, of course) before I knew how we were going to make the card work. I thought the pressure of having to do it would act as motivation.
Let's start with the obvious. It had to be a 9/9 creature for 10B. It had to have three creature types. We liked the idea of it being a Demon and a Beast with each being crossed off for the other and then being a Grandchild instead of a Child. We also gave it flying, first strike, and trample and then added a new ability—haste. If you can get this onto the battlefield, it's going to do a lot of damage right away.
Next, I decided to approach the main mechanic from a different vantage point. Forget working from the hand and library, what else did the cards do? The first Infernal did 1 point of damage and said, "I'm coming," and the second Infernal did 2 points of damage and said, "I'm coming too." That meant the third Infernal needed to deal 3 points of damage and say something like "I am also coming."
If we weren't going to have the third Infernal work from another zone, we needed a way to get it onto the battlefield. Was there a way to do that while working with the other two Infernal creatures so that you'd want to play them all in the same deck? The first two both revealed themselves. What if we played around with that? The earliest version required you to reveal a black card, but we decided it was just more fun to open it up and let it be any card that gets revealed (by a card or effect in the game, not you just flashing a card in your hand to your opponent because you feel like it). With a cost-reduction mechanic, we made the three damage an enters-the-battlefield effect and then had it say "I'm here" as it was now in the game.
The final problem, the name issue, was solved by Ari. How could we convey that this is the third of the series without continuing the name gag? Ari turned to other naming conventions used by people who have their parents' or grandparents' names. It was also fun to make it sound a little pompous.
This card was a huge challenge to design, but I'm glad I forced us into it, because I'm really happy with how it ended up.
Pippa was part of the enemy color legendary cycle. Based on the order we'd settled on, that meant she'd be green with a blue activation. Also, one of the things I'd listed that I wanted a new Unsanctioned card to do was be about dice rolling as that was something in both Unglued and Unstable. One of the idea fragments I had that I didn't know where to put was the idea of randomized token creatures. Back in Unglued, I'd made a card called Elvish Impersonators.
When you cast it, you rolled a six-sided die for its power and again for its toughness, meaning you had 36 different possible outcomes. I really liked the card and was curious if there was a way to bring something similar to tokens. Caring about a distinct different power and toughness seemed like a little too much, so I settled on the idea that it would just have square stats (1/1, 2/2, etc.). The idea would be that you roll a die to see how big your tokens were, anywhere from a 1/1 to a 6/6. That sounded fun and seemed like something a green creature would do, as green makes bigger creature tokens (white's slightly better at making small creature tokens).
So, the card would create tokens that you rolled a six-sided die to determine. That sounded fun. But what could the blue activation do? Blue has the power to reroll dice, and you're rolling dice to determine the size of the token—maybe there was something there. The issue was we only like blue rerolling dice once per turn. We also wanted to keep the token-making to once a turn. How can the two abilities interact if they both required tapping? The solution was a silver-bordered, out-of-the-box idea.
What if the tokens were not just anything but specifically had to be dice? What if they were dice tokens? This would mean that you would have permanents that from a game sense are actual dice. Yes, players often use dice to represent creature tokens, but from a game sense, those are technically dice. What if we made something that was? Why does that matter? Because if they were actual dice, blue's rerolling ability could work on them. (And yes, in retrospect, I wish we were clearer about this on the card.) Now the blue ability could be used on any other dice rolling or could be used on the dice creature tokens to give you a chance to reroll what they are. This total package felt like a fun commander.
Again, I've run out of time. I hope you are all enjoying these stories as much as I enjoy telling them. If you have any comments about the article, Unsanctioned, or any of the cards I've talked about today, feel free to email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram).
Join me next week for Part 3.
Until then, may you create your own fun stories with Unsanctioned.
This podcast is part two of a two-part series on a Head-to-Head I did on Twitter about possible changes to the Commander format.
This podcast is another in my two-color philosophy series.